The Brooklyn Nets’ Wednesday night loss to the Milwaukee Bucks — where the top seven rotation players either did not log a minute after the first quarter or suit up at all — was either an embarrassing farce or a pleasant respite from an 82-game slog, depending on your point of view.
Jacque Vaughn roundly rejected the notion that the Nets treated it like an “exhibition” game, citing the hard work of the players who did step on the floor. Jalen Wilson and Noah Clowney played extended NBA minutes for the first time, and finished with 21 and 14 points, respectively. The rookies were impressive, and so too were backups like Dennis Smith Jr. and Day’Ron Sharpe as well as new two-way Keon Johnson but the standout play was indeed made by a rotation headliner.
Cam Thomas came up with the following steal in the first quarter, and it illustrated how the third-year guard processes the game:
See, if the play is in front of him, Thomas has the will and talent to make it. That goes for his defense and passing, both of which I’ve called bottom-tier (for now). Yet, it’d be insincere to ignore the flashes Thomas shows, like a steal in help defense, or a perfectly thrown lob to Nic Claxton. In analyzing those plays, we find a pattern, and the next steps Thomas must take.
In the above play, he’s the “low-man.” When you hear “help-the-helper” from color commentators and coaches, they could be talking about said “low man,” whose job it frequently is to cover the big man protecting the rim. We see it here — Sharpe meets the driver, and Thomas helps him out, showing up at the last second for a steal.
It’s not the perfect play. If Lillard makes the pass early enough, say between Sharpe and Smith Jr. instead of around them, it’s a bucket. Still though, that’s what you want to see from Thomas. He’s active, engaged, and at the very least, not the weak link of the defensive possession.
It’s the type of play Thomas can make and has made, because it’s unfolding directly within his line of sight. As the low-man, he’s watching the play unfold with singular focus; high-school coaches may point out that Thomas has lost track of his man, Malik Beasley, but on a play like that, Thomas can rest assured Beasley isn’t moving from his perch in the corner.
We see the same thing on his assists, many of which showcase the skill we associate with his bucket-getting. Here, Thomas drives baseline, gets cut off, and slows up until a window to fire a cross-court lefty pass off the dribble opens. Easier done than said:
Same goes for the timing and placement of this lob pass, thrown just softly enough that it escapes the defender’s reach while still landing in Claxton’s orbit:
We all know Cam is a bucket, and based on the way he gets those buckets, we know his hand-eye coordination and lower-body strength are top-shelf. And to say that Thomas definitively cannot pass or play defense is overly simplistic, unaligned with the steals or the decent man-to-man defense or the impressive assists that pop up now and again.
Throw those flashes and his physical attributes together, and it begs the questions: Why isn’t he more proficient in other areas (yet), and what does he have to do to get there?
It starts with an increased awareness of what’s out of his sight-line. We see it on both ends from Thomas, that if a play isn’t in front of him, it’s not accessible. I don’t believe he’s a selfish player, that he doesn’t want to create for others or buy in on defense.
He just doesn’t see passes you’d expect regular ball-handlers to make, like this failure to turn a fast-break into anything other than a contested floater even with Spencer Dinwiddie wide open on the other side of the floor:
The impressive assists we saw earlier are available to Thomas because they’re within the natural direction of the play. When he’s looking to get downhill, he can make downhill passes; when he’s driving baseline, he can make baseline kick-outs that rival those of most guards in the league.
But as Jacque Vaughn openly considers shifting course away from a starting lineup that’s done nothing but get throttled (-17.1 net rating in 299 possessions), he’s likely weighing Thomas’ tunnel vision.
There are the obvious plays like these, where Thomas gets so locked into the ball in help defense that he fails to register his man jogging across the court for an open three:
There’s also a ceiling-limiting effect on Brooklyn’s defense — which has struggled for reasons aplenty. They are unable to execute more layered schemes or defensive principles with Thomas on the court. Spencer Dinwiddie is no perfect defender, but his lapses are frequently about technique and effort, whether it be a silly reach-in or giving up on a play too easily. On the other hand, Thomas is simply unaware too often.
Here, Brooking is X-ing out, meaning the defender in the corner will close out to the wing and vice versa off middle drives, making an X. Dinwiddie makes the first rotation, but Thomas is caught in no man’s land, prompting a reminder from Vaughn:
And on offense, the tunnel vision makes Thomas a rough fit next to Mikal Bridges and Dinwiddie, where he struggles to make quick decisions as the spacer he’s occasionally required to be. Despite a usage rate nearing 30%, Cam averages an impossibly low 2.3 assists a night, not because he has no on-ball playmaking skills, but because he doesn’t pick up the easy ones.
Here, he’s late to swing it to Dorian Finney-Smith in the corner, and the possession results in a tough fadeaway attempt for the 22-year-old:
possessions like these deflate Cam Thomas' assist-rate but have nothing to do with his on-ball playmaking: pic.twitter.com/99qOjQ46pP— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 21, 2023
Thomas isn’t ball-hogging there, unwilling to play unselfishly. He simply doesn’t register the correct read in time, which blows up the possession.
Imperfections aside, his talent is undeniable. Even a potential move to the bench shouldn’t be viewed as a demotion, but rather an opportunity to play in defensively-slanted lineups that help all involved. No matter what happens though, the key for Cam Thomas is to feel and react to what’s around him, not just in front of him.
Is this a feasible goal? I think so, at least to some extent. As Thomas continues to rep out various ball-handling and defensive situations, he should recognize patterns. Now that he knows how to break down the first defender and has started reading the second defender, who’s to say it’s impossible he’ll get to that third one?
We’ve seen such growth from Mikal Bridges, who has had a much larger leap to prime-time ball-handling responsibilities than Thomas, given his age and wildly different role as a Phoenix Sun. At first, every possession ended with a mid-range jumper; then Bridges started to throw some pocket passes, but he really felt comfortable skipping the ball across court, reading the low-man.
And just the other day, we saw the culmination of such efforts, where Bridges bent the low-man to his will, creating a look at the rim:
Might be Mikal's best pass of the season, manipulating the low-man to get Day'Ron an and-one: pic.twitter.com/4d4MjlX0gL— Lucas Kaplan (@LucasKaplan_) December 23, 2023
As it stands, Thomas is often a destructive defender and subpar passer. Yet, there are reasons to believe he’ll improve in both areas, beyond just gaining experience. Thanks to the physical gifts that propel buckets in droves, we see the flashes we’ve been longing for. A dime here, a steal there.
But all the improvements Thomas has to make share one commonality: a greater feel for the players around him, reacting off of feel and not just sight. Those are the plays I’ll be looking for from Cam Thomas.